How I Won the War: Canvassing for John Lindsay
I RANG the bell. Floorboards squeaked. "Who's there?" she whispered, not daring to even look through the peephole.
I quickly shoved the Smithie I was canvassing with forward. "Hello, we'd like to talk to you for a few minutes about the issues in the mayoralty campaign." New York. Washington Heights. Lindsay.
"Go away, we don't want any!" the woman said.
We stood for an uncertain moment, and could hear the old lady huddled behind the door, like a church mouse, waiting for us to leave.
Next door, a middle-aged man in dark striped pains, suspenders, a white shirt, and a powder-blue yarmulke, answered and told us he was an orthodox rabbi, and would not talk politics on the Sabbath.
"Would you please read this newsletter then, rabbi, because we feel this election is absolutely crucial?" I said.
"All right," he said, "but you'll have to place it on the floor across the threshold, because I'm not allowed to touch anything like that today."
About half of the weekend canvassers were with us that day in upper Manhattan's Washington Heights. At the briefing session that morning in the neighborhood campaign headquarters, we had been given the necessary politico-socio-economic background, in order to know what to expect.
Area #31 of the 73rd A.D. (an election district) consists largely of rent-controlled walkups, housing lower-middle-class blue collar workers. The median income is somewhere between $7,000 and $11,000, among the neighborhood's Jews and Irish, who account for most of the area's mixed populace. Surveys had shown that most voters in that part of Washington Heights were registered Democrats, hostile to anything associated with liberalism, and largely supporters of Mario Proccaccino.
A LITTLE old man answered our next ring, opening the door first with the chain still on, wondering who would have legitimate reason to call upon him at 2 p.m. on Saturday afternoon.
"We'd like to talk to you about the issues in the campaign for mayor, if you've got a couple of minutes."
"Really? You're the first people that have ever come around here to ask my opinions in thirty-five years."
Slowly, he unlatched the chain and invited us into his sitting room. We walked down a long hall past a woman in a housecoat who was working in the kitchen.
"Don't pay any attention to her," he said, "She's just the cleaning woman."
She came into the living room, and the man then introduced her as his wife, adding, "She doesn't know anything about polities, so I'm the one you'll want to talk to."
"Fine," I said, giving him the usual spiel.
"See, Martha, they want our opinions for a straw poll, He then turned to me and asked, "Are you working for one of the candidates or for a newspaper?"
"Well actually, sir, we're canvassing for Mayor Lindsay."
"Oh, that man. I voted for him the last time, but he's just disappointed everyone."
"Well, perhaps you could tell us just what it is about the past administration that you've objected to."
What haven't I objected, to? I know he's basically well-intentioned, but I've seen this city get worse in the last five years."
I tried to steer his conversation toward Lindsay's positions on welfare and federal taxation, but he was intent on discussing crime in the city, and the garbage in the streets.
"You know, this neighborhood didn't always look like this," he said. "Look at the street out front. It's filthy. They don't even bother to clean it up anymore. You don't see trash thrown out windows around Lincoln Center, do you?"
"You're right you don't, people just don't seem to have any respect for anything any more."
"I know sir, but perhaps that's because of a general decline in values, rather than the Mayor's fault. Maybe the impersonality of a large city makes it impossible to generate these positive feelings."
"That's just the point. Why don't people care? Because he isn't strong enough to instill these qualities in them, that's why. People don't seem to care anymore, and the Mayor can't seem to make any difference."
"What would you propose that he do?"
"Propose? We don't live that way. My wife and I have always had respect for law and order and decency. The Mayor has wavered so many times that no one's going to respect any of his laws."
"Well, he has done much to improve the quality of garbage disposal within the last year and a half."
"Yes, yes, he means well, but just can't command anyone's respect these days. Look around here. This part of New York used to be beautiful. We had a canopy over the front door, and a doorman a long time ago, and everyone took care of themselves then. But something seems to have changed, Lots of new people have been moving in. A lady down the hall just came over to this country from Jamaica, and she has seven children that she supports on welfare. Now, these people don't care.
"Now, I'm not prejudiced or anything. I don't pretend to be a son of the American Revolution, because my father came from Italy and my mother from France, but I fought in the First World War. There's a picture of my ship on the wall. Things were different then, There are just too many people moving in here. Let me tell you something. During the last century, thousands of Chinese came to California. The Governor imposed restrictions upon their would have been simply overrun."
"Well you don't want the Mayor to do that, do you?"
"I'm not saying that, I'm just saying that it's hard to assimilate all these people that come from places where they don't care about order and sanitation, and the things that are important to New Yorkers."
He sighed. "How do you explain the police? Two policemen sit up there on the hill in a police car all night long smoking cigarettes, while we never see a single cop on this street."
"That's true," his wife added. "Just two weeks ago, these kids threw firecrackers in the mailbox, and I called the police station, and it was a full forty-five minutes before anyone arrived."
"Supposing it was an emergency." he interrupted. "Do you know that we've had muggings and robberies right here in our very elevator? Yes, right in the elevator. I won't let my wife walk into this building alone at night. I leave the car in front, bring her upstairs and then go back down to park the car in a garage. We're taxpayers. What does he do with all that money? This city just isn't safe anymore."
I grabbed the opportunity to speak about taxation, and its relation to Vietnam, and also managed to slip in a few statistics about the success of New York's new auxiliary police force, the Fourth Platoon.
"Sure, there are thousands of them guarding his opera his opera house," he said, "but when we need a policeman, they're just not around. You know,I went down to his opera house last year just to see the way those people still dress, I hadn't been to one since the twenties. By accident, I got in, and when I got home, I felt so fancy that I didn't even talk to my wife. Now, none of those people have to worry about law and order."
Everywhere, we seemed to get similar responses. Half the tenants of the orthodox Jewish community were afraid to open their doors for fear of death, while groups of young Spanish speaking children went running up and down the stairs, playing happily, totally unaware of frightened faces behind closed doors.
Occasionally, a not-unhappy face would peep through a tiny slot to tell us, "Yes, I'll vote for Lindsay, what choice do I have ?" or perhaps to tell us, "He's well-intentioned but..."
No one denied his good intentions, most even thought he was "smart," yet nowhere did we find a spark of belief that New York's youthful Mayor could solve even the most basic of the city's problems.
They blamed him for the teachers' strike, the sanitation workers' strike, bad snow removal, and even dirty streets. They blamed him for high taxes, high prices, deteriorating neighborhoods, loss ob jobs, smog, pollution, traffic jams, subway malfunctions, and once, even for turning clocks backwards for daylight saving time.
Lindsay was "cute" and he was "nice," yet no one would have liked to vote for him. It was hard to "Vote for New York" when everything seemed wrong, yet harder to vote for "that man from Staten Island who wants the war" or the village idiot with the Groucho Marx moustache.
Most voters were angry; including the man who slammed his door shouting, "I don't vote, I'm a Communist."
They were angry at Lindsay's performance. But he won, and, after all, it is the "second toughest job in America."